What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Directed by Robert Aldrich. Starring Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono, Julie Alfred, Maidie Norman, Wesley Addy, Bert Freed BD Merrill Club, QFT, Belfast; IFI, Dublin, 133 min
Fifty years on, this enduringly nasty piece of grand guignol remains utterly compelling, says Tara Brady
“But you are Blanche. You are in that chair!” Is there a more exquisite exercise in heartfelt camp than Robert Aldrich’s creative disinterment of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford? The image of the two bitter, ageing actors – playing two bitter, ageing actors – is so immovably familiar it seems faintly astonishing that it didn’t exist before 1962.
Restored for its 50th anniversary, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? seems as freshly stale as it ever did. Yes, the film is something of a self-conscious game. By this point, all Hollywood knew that Davis and Crawford cordially loathed one another. Casting Bette as a malevolent former child star invited viewers to supercharge rumours of her flintiness and impatience. Casting Joan as a sweet-natured paraplegic, suffering domestic abuse with relative calm, counted as a blackly hilarious inversion of the perceived reality.
Or did it? Like all long-term S&M games, control in Baby Jane rests with the person who seems more sinned against than sinning. Crawford’s innocent is nothing of the sort; likewise Davis’s madwoman.
The story goes that, come Oscar time, Crawford was so irritated by Davis’s nomination and her own snubbing that she phoned those nominees unable to attend and offered to take their place at the ceremony. The ruse worked. Crawford ended up swanning past Davis to accept Anne Bancroft’s Oscar for The Miracle Worker.
But, for all the subtexts and Punch-and-Judy meta-fights, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? remains an oddly moving piece of work. Based on a sly book by Henry Farrell, the picture takes us into a nasty zero-sum game in which Davis’s Jane holds all the cards. A child star of the silent era, later passed out by her hitherto neglected sister, the superannuated painted doll now spends her days torturing the poor (or is she?) wheelchair user in increasingly baroque fashion. The story is greatly heightened, but the sibling rivalry feels believable.
Viewing the film from the vantage of a half-century adds an interesting perspective to its diagnosis of Hollywood amnesia. We are now further from Baby Jane than Baby Jane was from the silent era to which it looked bitterly back. Yet nothing about the film seems dated. The sour humour is still current. The taste for broad emotions still registers.
Still the tastiest rat on the menu. Get chewing.